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How wheelchair tennis great Joel Dembe inspired me to break the rules

Mar 13, 2015
written by: Catherine Cameron
written by: Catherine Cameron

Many Canadians familiar with my work promoting physical activity, sport participation, and healthy lifestyles, know I’m always urging people of all ages and abilities to try new activities. One never knows where they’ll discover a new interest or find a fit!

A couple of weeks back, I had the opportunity to meet and hit with Joel Dembe. Joel is Canada’s top-ranked men’s wheelchair tennis player and is currently training for the upcoming Parapan Am Games taking place in Toronto this year. I’ve watched him play before, and he’s a force.

As a three-season player who plays for fun and fitness, and not having picked up my racquet in months, I was a little nervous at the thought of balls flying towards me at top speed. It didn’t help to learn that Joel was also lining up a wheelchair for me. In fact, if you follow me on Twitter @Cate_Cameron or Joel @JoelDembe, you probably saw I suggested we have a stretcher on stand-by and that he replied with “no need, we’ve got a wheelchair in the house!”

Upon arriving at the courts, I stood on the sidelines watching him play, marvelling at his speed and agility, and watching as he carried his racquet in hand while wheeling to return the ball. The two-bounces allowed in wheelchair tennis? More often than not he returned the ball after just one.

Joel’s story isn’t about disability. It’s about determination, passion, and commitment — the same “things” that enable any of us to do whatever we set our minds to. I unzipped my racquet from its cover and felt a little relief when Joel announced that due to a minor shoulder injury, he wouldn’t be doing any overhand serves. “Thank God,” I thought… knowing it also got me off the hook from attempting a serve I haven’t worked on in months.

Within minutes I relaxed and wound up having a ton of fun, relishing the opportunity to hit again, especially with someone so accomplished. I did hop into Joel’s chair – but just wheeling around the court with my racquet in hand was enough for a first lesson. Joel’s been playing sports most of his life, enjoying sledge hockey and baseball, discovering his passion for tennis when he was 13.

I came home inspired and eager to work on my game this spring. So much so, that I announced to my youngest daughter that our “no tennis in the house” rule has been lifted. After all, what’s a little winter tennis in the basement?